European Mother

She was born in Paris in 1950 but not long after, a new right wing government forced the HQ of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) where my grandparents both worked, to move abroad. My family moved to Geneva for a few months, now working temporarily as WFTU representatives to the International Labour Office (an agency of the UN) while their offices were moved to the Soviet sector of Vienna. Between ’51 and ’55 my Mother was raised in Austria until there was a change of government – it became independent after the 4 way rule (between UK, France, USSR and USA) came to an end. A condition was that it had to be neutral, so the Communist WFTU moved to Prague in ’56. My family did also but decided ultimately to move to a German speaking country, instead of having to learn Czech. They found jobs in a member organisation of the WFTU, an affiliate in East Berlin. Their 6 week period in Prague was basically for the purposes of being under observation by the East German government, as if in a holding pen. Once in East Berlin my Grandparents were employed by the Trades Union International (TUI) for Public Employees (a TUI was a Communist idea, a global collective of trade unions for a particular sector.)

When my Mother was finally brought to live in London in 1963, it was because of the break up of my Grandparents’ marriage. My English Grandmother had retained her British passport throughout, so moving back was possible. My Mother cites walking up the steps to board the aeroplane for London as the biggest turning point in her life. She had to give up the life she’d grown comfortable with, and be thrown into a new system – politically and culturally. Her Father would not be allowed to visit (until later in life) and she felt forever like a foreigner in her actual Motherland. The divisive political borders in place during the Cold War made travel and connection much harder; so far from the free flowing passage to which many of us have become accustomed. I got to thinking about this after last June’s referendum on Britain’s EU membership, as the UK plunged back to the 1980s (and earlier) in terms of overt racism. Trump’s presidency just added to this sense of regressing, of a fortress around richer more developed places, and poverty being enclosed in a prison.

Many of my European friends living in London can’t help but feel unsettled, even if they have lived here more than 20 years, and even if they have married a Brit. Theresa May refuses to guarantee their right to remain here. However much I find it hard to believe they may be deported, I do not currently face any threat of deportation myself. My life continues largely as before. Yet my life has been shaped not only by the threat of, but the actual deportation of my Mother’s family throughout her childhood. My life would have been very different (or probably not existed) had my Mother never journeyed to the political East early on. She even cites the move back to the West during her puberty, as the catalyst for triggering her multiple schlerosis (MS). A few months after moving to London, she first experienced the disease. For a month she was unable to walk properly and for a year could not take part in sport. The doctors knew what it was and told her Mother, but as my Mum was under 16 they were not obliged to tell her. The crucial thing was, the doctors warned that while at this stage the disease was only temporary, it would most likely return later in her life, around her late 30s, when it would reappear with a vengeance. This is exactly what happened, but my Grandmother died without telling her daughter that she knew. It was a Great Aunt who subsequently revealed the truth.

While it may seem unlikely that moving to a more affluent and liberal city such as London would bring on a disease, the point is that my Mother had grown very comfortable and self confident in East Berlin. Not what we always hear about the Communist states, but that was her experience. To be wrenched from that world at her Mother’s instigation at a time in a girl’s life when many hormonal shifts are jolting, thrown into a new system more driven by greed and competition, unable to maintain easy contact with left behind loved ones, was a psychic disturbance.

When I was about 19 and my Mother’s MS was well underway I got in touch with the MS Society and started reading their literature. One article stated that there was a relatively high incidence of MS occurring among people who moved from a warmer climate to a significantly cooler place during puberty. I couldn’t help but imagine a link. What if it wasn’t just about physical temperature, but also concerned energetic shifts, say in socio-economic climate, combined with emotional state. It might not apply to a girl escaping from the East to find a better life in the West as was not uncommon, but in my Mother’s case, her parents had unusually chosen to live behind the Iron Curtain because of their political beliefs. More than that her American Father would not have been able to marry his British Communist wife and remain in the US at the time. His choice to move to Europe was political, and also of the heart.

During a recent visit to my parents, I found my Dad sat at the kitchen table. He declared bleakly, “It’s like an unfolding nightmare here. Let’s move to Germany.” Mum however was less keen. After living in London for over 50 years she has finally settled. Besides which, being massively disabled makes any sort of moving or travelling far harder. Their home has been fully adapted with hoists, ramps, a lift, special shower unit for wheelchair, a hospital bed… and after a good 15 years of employing carers and personal assistants, they are now in a more confident place in that respect. It takes time to know what you need and how to ask for it, often of people who don’t speak English so well. They have had assistants of many nationalities – African, middle eastern, far eastern, northern European… and the current team are a mix of Polish, Czech Republic and Slovakian. In the event that these women had to leave the UK, perhaps Mum would feel differently about staying.

Mum aged 11 or 12, in East Berlin, 1962

Mum aged 16 or 17, in London, 1967

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One thought on “European Mother

  1. Having recently paid a visit to Berlin-I think the most poignant city in Europe’s history in the last 100 years-I take your personal account of human tragedy as a stark reminder. We somehow became complacent, but the forces stiring division and hatred are lurking around. Some more obvious, some concealed. Some we elect to govern, some elect themselves and have enough power to influence governments. Scary indeed. I do feel the same, and I fully understand your family’s concerns. ‘European Mother’ – sounds so modern, so 21st century. There people though who would love us to go back to the caves.
    Future belongs to human race, not to human tribes. The sooner we adopt this, the better.

    Like

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